Thoughts on Doris Lessing's "Shikasta" and other Canopus novels




 What is our real situation? Doris Lessing's novel "Shikasta" is, as she has admitted, a rewriting of some of the themes of the Christian and Jewish bible, and also the Quran - three of the main literary influences on the west.
What is fiction?
Isaac Asimov used to be asked where he got his ideas from. His reply? "I make 'em up". Lessing herself has complained that many readers these days seem unaware that fiction is possible. It is possible to write an elaborate description about something that exists only in the mind of the writer.

The main idea of Shikasta is that the history of life on earth is part of a process taking in the development of the whole universe. This idea of course has been central to human religions as far back as we can study them (to the written records of the Sumerians and Egyptians). It is expressed by the idea that one or more "gods" is interested in human affairs, or even in individual lives. As recently as the 19th century most people in Britain believed there was a "divine plan" (usually involving the British Empire's benevolent domination of the world).

The novel's fictional characters include several actors from outside the earth itself. There are the mysterious Canopans, agents of the "empire" of Canopus. This is an empire in name but does not seem to exert its influence by military means. Instead its agents act on culture, by telling stories, by influencing individuals. Its agents are present on earth not so much by arriving in space vehicles as by using a technique of being born to human parents.

Another empire is that of Sirius, associated with the Dog Star, as prominent in human mythology as Canopus itself. This seems to be a more conventional empire, a colonial and military empire of a type we have plenty of experience on earth. Whereas the Canopans are wise and far seeing, the Sirians seem remarkably like humans: short-sighted, blundering, insensitive, unaware of the effects of their actions. Perhaps they are modelled on the British empire (whose leaders of course thought of it as wise and benevolent).

A third empire is that of Shammat, a descendant of Puttiora (never described). These "space pirates", as Lessing has called them, lack all awareness of their activities but operate on pure greed. They blunder about kidnapping people, especially women, for their undescribed purposes. Their interest is in stirring up wars and conflicts among the humans and feeding off the emanations from hate and conflict. The novel suggests people like that are the Genghis Khans and demagogues of our own history. The reader may well think about certain prominent individuals in our time, whose preference is always to stir up wars and hatred.

The Fall
Lessing's Canopans are engaged in a huge development plan for the universe in which one planet - Rohanda, the fruitful one - is an important component. (We should note the use of Persian names for many of the characters, Shikasta being Persian for "the broken one". Lessing was of course born in Persia where her father was working, before he moved to Southern Rhodesia to be a farmer.)

What is their motive? The only answer is "need". This suggests an infinite regression or hierarchy of being, beyond even the Canopans. Are they answerable to a superior level? There is only the merest suggestion - for example, that the Sun is a body with a kind of consciousness and life imperceptible to humans.

The development of Rohanda includes not just a rich biosphere but the development of intelligent species. An important idea is that the development of this planet affects in some mysterious way the balance and development of every other planet under Canopans' influence. Another is the need for a "substance of we feeling", a mysterious influence that comes from outside the earth to make for harmonious development of the humans and other life.

It is a sudden interruption of the supply of this SOWF, because of Cosmic Events beyond the control of the Canopans, that causes the events of the later part of the book, and the changing of the name of the planet to "the broken one". Because of its absence, or diminished supply, things no longer go well, and the rapidly evolving humans regress to a more primitive condition.

This idea indicates that the bad behaviour and failures of the inhabitants of the planet are not their own fault but caused by circumstances beyond anyone's control - even the Canopans'.

Fictional as this idea is, so is the Genesis idea of "original sin", but this one at least is hopeful in that the Shikastans can expect a resumption in the supply when the "Cosmic difficulties" correct themselves. Thus the guilt which pervades some of the cultural tendencies on our real planet perhaps might be inappropriate.

Literary life
It seems that some people have formed a cult or "new religion" out of these books. (see the wikipedia article) This seems to me a daft approach as, let us not forget, the books are fiction - the product of their author's imagination. While she is alive it is easy to see she is an ordinary human being (with exceptional skills of writing and a vivid and prolific imagination). She makes use of the stock of human stories and gives them a new setting appropriate to our times. Do these stories really depict our situation?

Interesting Reading
Doris Lessing - Shikasta

Shikasta. Canopus im Argos: Archive I

Doris Lessing - The Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire

The People of the Secret - Ernest Scott (see also Speculations)

Der Geheimnisträger

Les gardiens invisibles

Here are some of my own speculations, brewing in my mind for perhaps 50 years.

The last two centuries have been a time of amazing change in the human way of life. We can argue about when the real causes of the Industrial Revolution in western Europe occurred. Was it the monasteries which developed the need to know the time for their ceremonies and so invented mechanical clocks? Or the Cistercians who may have invented steel within the workshops of their monasteries built in the waste lands that they made productive? Was it the science that came to Europe from the neighbouring Islamic world? The engineers of the High Middle Age built the Cathedrals, showing mathematical skills and craftsmanship in building such devices as cranes and hoists within the new, unprecedented buildings, many of which still survive despite being built of natural stone balanced in a way that must have been calculated, nearly 1000 years ago.

By the 17th century craftsmanship was evolving into engineering. In Britain they built locks on the navigable rivers, enlarging the skills of millwrights into the new pound lock gates and sluices (probably imitated from Italian canals, and perhaps, distantly from China).James Brindley is the example of an illiterate millwright who devised many of the features of canals in the late 18th century and was responsible for many of the first English canals (see L T C Rolt biography). In the 18th century the same engineers started building bigger water wheels to power groups of machines for spinning and weaving cloth. When in the mid-18th century they added steam power to this technology, the Industrial Revolution was well started. Ornstein and Burke show how these changes affected so many other aspects of culture and human activities. Printing industrialised the making and distribution of written texts.

The question that has puzzled me all my life is "what is all this for?" If we recognise that humanity is evolving according to a "Divine Plan" as we used to call it, why have all the negative effects of this recent development been "allowed"?

The negative effects are well known:

  • changes in the atmosphere leading to climate change is the most obvious and urgent;
  • population increase pressing on our ability to feed people;
  • extinction of many of the species that have evolved alongside humans (and before them);
  • the degradation of the life of billions of humans in the huge cancerous cities.

Lessing suggests these developments are the results of a cosmic interruption in the supply of SOWF. But let us imagine another possibility. The "Canopans" in charge of the earth would surely be aware of the results of the arrival of the Asteroid 65 million years ago that caused a Mass Extinction of species, most notably the giant reptiles. The fossil record shows a period of at least a million years when there was very little life in the oceans and on land, before speciation produced the variety we have become familiar with, this time based on the mammal rather than the reptile.

Perhaps we might speculate that they are aware that another such object is approaching the earth. Perhaps 65 million years ago the clearing away of the reptile-dominated ecosystem was a useful development, mammals being a better basis for intelligent and conscious life. This time, however, it would be useful to avoid that kind of destruction, which took so many million years to recover from. How could the Canopans arrange for an asteroid to be deflected? Surely, only by developing a culture capable of the technical means of first detecting it and then preventing its collision - topics certainly being discussed by NASA and other space agencies (and urged by Mr Lembit Opik MP). But to develop this capability requires the whole technical culture we have been taken up with for at least the last 200 years. Examining the roots of the industrial culture we can speculate that if this development was planned it must have begun at least 1000 years ago when the ideas of science and mathematics were introduced into the culture of the Europeans. That process can be seen in the School of Translators at Toledo, first when it was owned by Muslims, continuing when it had been conquered by Christians.

Until the 17th century the culture of science was a more or less hidden activity, because of the hostility of the dominant influences on official culture - in Europe the religions. (Even so wind and water mills were among the important technical developments.) From the time of the Reformation the influence of religion has weakened and been replaced by science as the dominant mode of thinking in Europe. Is this development an accident - as the dominant trend of thought asserts? Or was it influenced by Canopans working behind the scenes?

I wonder whether, if a space object arrives some time in the near future and is dealt with so that the earth is safe, the whole industrial culture will be wound down and the negative effects removed.

That seems to be the theme of the last chapter of "Shikasta" where a rather confused "endtimes" (mirroring the last book of the bible) ushers in a new period of development in which a small population of humans, and an adequate supply of SOWF, build a new harmonious cooperation with the Canopans and resume rapid evolution.

There is another way of looking at the development of conscious species.

James Lovelock observed that the whole ecosystem behaves as though it were a super-organism, and that species could be looked at as organs within the totality. Each species, from his point of view has a role to play in the whole. He emphasises the role of certain bacteria in regulating the temperature at an equable level, in the face of variations in the sun's output. But every other species has functions in relation to all the others. Lovelock of course vigorously denies that his Gaia is in fact a single entity, merely observing that it behaves like one.

If we were to accept this view, what would be the role of a conscious and creative species like humanity? When we are feeling a bit bumptious we tend to assign to ourselves the role of Director - the brains of the outfit - but I wonder if we might perhaps assign a different role. If Gaia is an individual life form it may one day want to reproduce. How could such an an organism reproduce itself? Surely, it would need a reproductive apparatus to produce the equivalent of spores to travel to new sites where a planetary life form could grow.

That implies the need for an organ of the whole body to produce those spores. Bingo. It would develop a species capable of building spores and sending them through space to other sites for growth. Humanity, far from being the brains of the outfit is in reality the - gonads. The space programme is, unknown to those taking part in it, at the direction of the Gaia individual and its purpose is to send a sample of the planetary eco-system to other planets and infect them with life.

An unsettling thought here is: how often does a Gaia need to reproduce? Some species reproduce once - even after 100 years - and then the individual dies, having put all its energy into the effort. Others continue to reproduce throughout life, many times. Which kind is Gaia?

If the function of humanity is to reproduce Gaia what would happen to this organ if it is needed only a few times? The energy required to launch a space bubble containing the contents of a gaia would be very large. Maybe that would be enough to kill the gaia left behind. Or maybe, having reproduced once, with a feedback from the colony to show that it had been established the reproduction organ would no longer be needed. What would happen to humans? And on the colony, established to support humans, as we would think, would there be any need for humans there? Clearly, it takes thousands of millions of years before a gaia is ready to reproduce. Once the new individual is established it would not need a reproductive organ and so would eliminate the humans sent with it.

J B S Haldane observed: It is my supposition that the Universe is not only queerer than we imagine, but is queerer than we can imagine.

 James Burke and Robert Ornstein - The Axemaker's Gift (Grosset/Putnam 1995)
How technology has affected language and many other topics

 James Lovelock - Gaia

Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth

Gaia: Die Erde ist ein Lebewesen. Anatomie und Physiologie des Organismus Erde.

La Terre est un Être vivant: L' hypothése Gaïa

James Lovelock - Revenge of Gaia

Gaias Rache
Charles Hadfield - English Rivers and Canals

L T C Rolt - High Horse Riderless

High Horse Riderless (Green Classics)

craftsmanship and engineering, faults in our industrial civilisation


Last revision 8/04/12

Since 30/04/11

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